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Metro-North Fire Sparks New City Rules for Property Under Elevated Tracks

 Metro-North workers wield temporary support beams to repair damages after a massive blaze occurred Tuesday night under the tracks in East Harlem between East 117th and 118th streets. May 18, 2016
Metro-North workers wield temporary support beams to repair damages after a massive blaze occurred Tuesday night under the tracks in East Harlem between East 117th and 118th streets. May 18, 2016
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Dartunorro Clark/DNAInfo

CITY HALL — A massive fire at an East Harlem garden business under the Metro-North tracks has prompted the city to inspect all of its properties that sit under elevated rail infrastructure.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday the city's Economic Development Corporation will begin regular “safety sweeps” and reviews of all of its properties near critical infrastructure and the city will review all city-owned properties under tracks.

It follows a fire at the Urban Garden Center, at 116 St Street and Park Avenue, that the FDNY said was fueled by chemicals and supplies stored by the business.

De Blasio also said the city will amend the lease it has with the garden center, which is managed by the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

“The city has taken swift and strong action and we’re doing all we can to prevent incidents like this from happening again,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a statement.

“We are ramping up inspections in the affected area and reviewing sites under critical infrastructure citywide to ensure New Yorkers’ safety and peace of mind.”

City agencies, including the Small Business Service, Department of Buildings, DOT and FDNY, have begun the review to ensure no unlawful conditions exist that could contribute to a future incident, he said.

The garden center's new lease would allow the business to remain open but set new conditions, such as explicitly prohibiting the storage of flammable gas and liquids.

“The lease amendments offered to Urban Garden Center will allow this longstanding East Harlem business to remain in its current location while ensuring proper oversight to prevent incidents like this in the future,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who also represents East Harlem.

The FDNY said the cause of the fire was accidental and connected to fuel spilling on a hot generator. It was fueled by chemicals stored there without necessary permits required by FDNY regulations, the department said. 

The FDNY also found propane tanks, which officials said did not play a role in the fire but were also stored without permits, and issued four summonses to the business last week, which require a court appearance.  

The FDNY and the EDC have investigated the site multiple times following the fire and no remaining issues have been found, officials said.

The amended lease will also include a revised access provision by city agencies which gives officials access at any time to inspect or conduct repairs. It also allows the MTA to enter at any time if the agency has a need to inspect or conduct repairs to MTA property, officials said.

Management of the garden center has two days to review the terms of the amendment. 

“We appreciate the opportunity to continue running our business in our community that we love,” said owner Dimitri Gatanas. “There are stringent rules that we are faced with and we’ll have to deal with it.

“We welcome any compliance with public safety,” he said, but added he’s unsure of “how long we’ll be able to stay here because there’s absolutely no incentive for us to make any investments for the future,” citing a possibility of the garden being shuttered by the city under the guidelines.

“The guidelines are so difficult to comply with,” he said. “We had an accident and we're paying hardily for the accident.”

At a press conference Thursday, the mayor took issue with the owners sentiments.

"I find the owner’s comments surprising. There were clearly violations. He should own up to it, and he should get right with law," the mayor said.

"We obviously believe it’s a site that could continue to contribute if all the laws are followed — and safety is the number one priority....in any situation where we provide an opportunity for someone to be our tenant — only if they are following our laws. If not, they’re not going to be there."

The mayor said the FDNY will inspect the Urban Garden Center at least once a month until further notice. 

Officials said the EDC and FDNY have also reviewed the portfolio of EDC-managed public retail markets, such as La Marqueta, a marketplace under the Metro-North tracks between 111th and 116th Streets along Park Avenue.

The open lots that are part of La Marqueta will now be inspected monthly by FDNY in addition to the regular city inspections.